Why doesn't consumer audio sound better?
January 10, 2012 4:34 PM   Subscribe

Why is audio quality so lacking in consumer audio goods, when it is so easy to improve upon it?

I've built speakers, amplifiers, and just now a tiny USB DAC. In each of these, the audio quality is miles ahead of any consumer audio stuff I've ever auditioned. It's not just me - an amp I built was playing at a party and people were commenting on the sound quality of their own volition, and asking how they could get something that sounded like that. I literally sold three amplifiers that night without any prior intention to do so. Hadn't even crossed my mind that people would want to buy. All these things I've built myself have been very cheap ($40 speaker drivers, $50 amplifier kit, $35 DAC kit). Reasonably simple to build, too. Not many components, small and simple PCB layout.

Hence the question: Why is audio quality so lacking in consumer audio goods, when it is so easy to improve upon it?

Help me understand the free market. I have the feeling that spending $5 dollars more on electronic components and a few hours more on design would improve sound quality quite noticeably in any random piece of consumer gear. Better audio quality could be considered a superfluous aspect, but manufacturers are already competing on luxury aspects of practical items - see Apple laptops, Audi, Ducati, and on and on. Besides that, amazing audio quality is a very good way to differentiate yourself in the market. It's a highly noticeable quality. Big "wow" factor.

I am just an idiot with a soldering iron - How come I am capable of bettering an Apple laptop's analog audio output quality? How come a amateur soldered Tripath amplifier beats the pants off any Marantz, NAD, Denon, Kenwood amp I've ever auditioned?

I'm finding it difficult to phrase this as a distinct question. Music is so important, and good audio quality allows you to discover new music more easily and keep yourself spiritually nourished. People sing and whistle and dance more when the music is presented better. There's simply more happiness. I'm just kind of saddened and surprised at how easy it would be for the manufacturers of our entertainment machines to make the world noticeably more pleasant for trivial cost. What reasons can you think of for them not doing better?
posted by krilli to Technology (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Better sound quality costs more. Even if it costs $1.00 more, it's still a cost that has to be shaved off in such a competitive market. Joe Consumer usually looks at it like "oh, this 5.1 speaker system is the same price as these two speaker set, I'll get more. More must mean better!!!" despite the fact that maybe even the two speaker set has a better sound quality and that most things aren't equipped for true 5.1.

Also, a lot of people don't care. Audiophilism itself is already a niche hobby. I know this as I've built headphone amps and dacs myself. Many high quality (and relatively "cheap" at $200 or less) amps and dacs aren't even available off the shelf as you have to solder it yourself because there isn't that much of a demand of it outside the DIY audiophiles.
posted by xtine at 4:39 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also to note: look at how well headphones like Skullcandy and Dr. Dre Beats sell. Like hotcakes. Skullcandy headphones are low quality for the price, you can easily find better headphones for less. While Dr. Dre Beats aren't bad in itself, there are still many comparable headphones that sound much better, yet the image and marketing makes it fly off the shelves.

So basically, many consumers care more about how the product looks than how it performs. Even Bose isn't that great and kind of laughed at from anyone that takes headphone listening seriously. But the name makes it sell.
posted by xtine at 4:43 PM on January 10, 2012

Crappy stuff is abundant because it allows for high profit margins in a market where most consumers put more importance on price than on quality.

Great sounding stuff is available at a higher but still not outrageous price. People who care are willing to pay more and they do.

Then the top of the market is full of outrageously expensive stuff that sounds about the same as the regular great sounding stuff, with a few exceptions (super high end recording studio reference monitors, for example, actually do sound as good as their price tag suggests, whereas "audiophile" stuff is just overpriced crap).

All variations within those categories exist because of market forces.

The bottom line is that manufacturers are not in it to make the world better. They're in it to stay in business and make money. They make more money by either selling crap or selling outrageously-expensive snake oil to audiophiles. And the exception is the stuff that is actually out there that sounds good and costs a little more than the crap.
posted by The World Famous at 4:45 PM on January 10, 2012

You make an awesome point. Does anybody know of resources (from start to finish) of how to do this myself? What are some easy beginner projects and where can I get the parts?
posted by Strass at 5:12 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been holding on to my Onkyo P-304 Preamp for this very reason. I got it about 12 years ago new for around $300. I'm hoping it lasts forever because I can't seem to find anything else that's currently made with the same quality and price range that doesn't fuck up the sound. Which is odd, because isn't everything pretty much super cheap these days? (e.g. compare the price of a laptop or lcd monitor today to 12 years ago). Don't even get me started on the whole "let's put every control in an on-screen menu and then throw blue LEDs all over it" craze. I'll never understand.

I also think the factory stereo in my 2008 Prius is pretty badass for a stock system (I don't have the fancy upgrade JBL system or whatever it is)... nice balance all around and sounds great with all kinds of music. Then I get into a Honda Accord of the same vintage and the stereo in those things sounds like completely unbalanced muffled shit. I feel like if you're paying $20,000+ for a car the least the manufacturer could do is to spend $40 more on the damn stereo design/speakers/whatever.

For what it's worth, I think the audio quality on my iPhone is pretty damn good if you have good headphones plugged into it. Especially considering how small the DAC is and all the other shit they have crammed into that thing.

I think it comes down to the fact that most people can easily be swindled by marketing, and flashy lights, and bullshit chrome on everything, and long feature lists and tech specs that don't really matter. So that's what companies market to: your average dumbass American who has no taste, and isn't particularly smart, and has no problem throwing money away on crap year after year instead of investing in something that's quality.

And the companies that do make good products realize that the people who seek quality will often pay handsomely for it, so they sell stuff for WAY more than it should really cost (the one exception to this in recent years seems to be Apple -- I'm still amazed how cheap and amazing, for example, the Macbook Air is.... wow). I know when I was doing a "what if" comparison of what I'd get if my Onkyo died, the only stuff I could find that would be an acceptable replacement was over $1,000. Ridiculous.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 5:17 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

When it comes to electronics, if you charge more for your product than the competitor, you must make a convincing argument for the extra expense, or the buyer will often move on to the less expensive options. Apple is pretty much the exception as far as consumer electronics companies that make a decent profit margin on what they sell, and they can get away with it for technical reasons not relevant to digital audio. For Sony, Toshiba, HP, et al. to improve the components in their products, on the other hand, they would either be cutting into very slim profit margins or end up raising their prices, making their goods less attractive than those from competitors. It is easier for everyone (including Apple) to "race to the bottom" and make a guaranteed return-on-investment on low-quality components, than to convince consumers that an extra x dollars is worth it for subjectively better sound that, in reality, most people's ears cannot discern or appreciate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:19 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

How come I am capable of bettering an Apple laptop's analog audio output quality?

1. Apple (and most others) are very concerned about physical size and weight and heat and battery life. This pushes electrical design towards:
- components tightly packed (which increases interference)
- components not well shielded (which allows more interference)
- use of small components (which in some cases limits their output)
- use of low-power components (which in some cases limits their output)

2. A computer is a hostile environment for analogue electronics. The audio output quality of an apple laptop would be greatly improved, without a single change, simply if you removed the computer, fan, drives, etc, from the device.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:51 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another one is the use of jack-of-all-trades components to be competitive. Eg for one of those FM transmitters (to player your mp3s on your car stereo), the manufacturer has no control over the sound quality, because almost the entire circuit is provided by one off-the-shelf chip - and that chip makes some big compromises on sound quality. The only alternative (laying out your own stereo transmitter circuit using discreet components) is an FM transmitter that is much bulkier, costs ten times more, and is more battery hungry. ie market roadkill.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:08 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think from the other direction - I assume that unless you half-arse a job, today's mass-manufacturing techniques are typically unable to compete with skilled labour-of-love human craftmanship. Automated manufacturing imposes severe limits on design, compared to what it available to the craftsman.

So my answer to your question is that something made with care and attention is naturally going to be better than something that had to be made under the extreme manufacturing limits of automated processes and sweatshop labour - making obvious exceptions for devices that take ten-thousand man-hours to design - you don't got that kinda time available per-project 'cos there's only one of you.

Take home lesson: Items on Etsy for which the selling point is "it's hand-made!!!" instead of "it's genuinely better than what mass-production can offer" are doing it wrong.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:46 PM on January 10, 2012

Quality is there for reasonable price, but you have to know where to find it. In low cost pro audio Greg Mackie did a pretty good job of bringing high end down to real prices. Then Behringer borrowed his designs and did it for far less.

Anecdotally, a friend of a friend; I'll call him an acqaintance, contacted me about stereo speakers. He wanted to buy the best speakers possible. I talked with him a lot, and he wanted super accurate awesome speakers, so I talked about studio reference monitors like Meyersound, Westlake, et cetera and how they're not nearly as expensive as some of the speakers he was looking at. He ended up spending $35k on some random audiophile speakers and putting them in the corners or his room.

The anecdata is the same with Beats, Skull Candy, and Monster Cable: there's plenty of silly places to put your money.
posted by lothar at 8:23 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm going to go against the grain here, and say that an amateur soldered Tripath amp doesn't beat the pants off any Marantz, NAD, Denon, or Kenwood amp you've heard. It's that you're primed to think that it is.

Audio is so incredibly subjective that people actually get pretty offended when this is made clear to them. I've done a number of blind tests with audio professionals and different gear, and it's honestly embarrassing how many people who would bet their home on their ability to pick out a good/bad piece of gear can't tell the difference between a laptop output and a 4 or 5 figure DAC. (And this doesn't even begin to get into the problem where people will choose a slightly louder, much lower-fidelity source as the 'better' when compared to a quieter high-fidelity one.)

So here's my rule for audio comparisons: Unless it has been blind tested or there is an obvious macro-scale physical property (like bigger woofers) which is present, it actually sounds the same.

If you think your friends have golden ears and are picking out your amp over the other amp, here's an easy way to tell how reliable those ears are:

Bring a friend over. Tell them you want them to compare your Marantz (or whatever) to your custom piece of kit.

Play something on the Marantz. Go behind your audio rack. Unplug the audio cable from the Marantz. Now plug it right back into the Marantz. Tell your friend that you're using your own amp now. Play something. Ask them what they thought the differences were between the two. $50 says they will have a whole list of differences they'll rattle off to you -- and they're not lying, they actually heard differences.

We can't trust our ears. Unless you have picked your own amp out as better sounding in a proper blind trial 9-out-of-10 times, I'm going to say it doesn't objectively sound better. It sounds better to you, which is really all that matters. But to answer the question of "Why is audio quality so lacking in consumer audio goods, when it is so easy to improve upon it":

It isn't, and it isn't.
posted by Jairus at 8:24 PM on January 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

I'm not sure why you are stuck on Tripath amplifiers. That is 1990s technology that has been replaced by much better class-D amplifiers. Apple, Sony and others used Tripath parts years ago but moved on to better and cheaper vendors when Tripath couldn't keep up with improvements in digital and analog technology in the last decade. Tripath has been out of business for years and any Tripath parts you buy today are Chinese knockoffs of very old designs at premium prices.
posted by JackFlash at 10:01 PM on January 10, 2012

Why is audio quality so lacking in consumer audio goods, when it is so easy to improve upon it?

My opinion: Most consumers using such products do not give a hoot about audio quality.

That said, the macbooks I've had always had better audio quality, both through speakers and through the headphone jack, than my dell/acer etc laptops. A nice audio interface and good headphones will still kick butt though.
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:18 AM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everybody!

A couple of points:

- The party where the people were crazy about the sound: They didn't know there was a home-built amplifier, and weren't told there was anything unusual about the stereo system. It was just playing and people were asking why the music sounded awesome. And therewith, many people do care – they just have no idea that stuff can sound better.

- The amps and DAC I've built have quite good measured specs. For instance, the amplifier - using a Tripath TC2001 controller + STA516B output stage - has a THD+N figure of about 0.007% at 100W, and the WM8524 DAC implementation below 0.006% THD+N. For a DAC, those are quite reasonable specs, and for an amplifier that's a very good distortion measurement. Better-measuring gear is out there, but from looking at consumer audio amplifier specs, units with specs like this are not common. But of course, specs aren't the whole story - valve amps sound great but have much higher THD.

Blind A/B testing is the only hard proof, of course. However, objectively better sounding gear still sounds better even if it hasn't yet been proven to do so with well executed A/B testing.

Totally agree on the "more is better" thing: "More speakers with more drivers each! That must be better! And this one is more watts!"

I think part of the problem is that the customer is uneducated. The understanding is very naive. They don't know what a DAC is or does, or that they even exist. People don't know that an amplifier affects the sound quality - people think that an amplifier just makes things go louder. Once you study things a little bit and compare, I do believe that many people can recognize better sounding gear and will consistently prefer it. But there seems to be a perverse incentive in place in the consumer audio market, a market force that actually keeps the customer uneducated.
posted by krilli at 3:40 AM on January 11, 2012

I think it's very difficult to tell in advance whether the sound quality will be good or not on consumer audio goods, so it is difficult for products to compete on this. I would probably buy better sounding equipment if I could tell from the packaging, but I can't, so I don't bother. There's no single number which products can put on their packaging to stand out in this way: "New! Now up to 743 soundQualityUnits!"
posted by richb at 3:46 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry but i'm with Jairus. I just don't believe your home made gear is actually better than equivalent quality consumer equipment.

To start with what are you talking about?
a) Why I am capable of bettering an Apple laptop's analog audio output quality?

do you mean you have built a better DAC than the Apple output? or that your large freestanding speakers sound better then the tiny little crappy speakers built into a laptop?

if the DAC has better specs I also imagine it costs more than the one in the laptop. And well of course your speakers sound better, they are bigger.

Most people these days just listen to their laptop speakers (which sound terrible!) or a cheap $50 integrated Hi-Fi system.

So you have actually just spent: ($40 speaker drivers, $50 amplifier kit, $35 DAC kit) so based on Costs of production, hours spent, odds and ends, wood and parts. This this is close to $200 for just an Amplifier and speakers.

Then allowing for transport, business margins and over-heads all these other factors like Markup. You should be comparing your system with a $300+ Amp and Speaker system.

Most people do not even spend that on a Hi-Fi system.
posted by mary8nne at 4:56 AM on January 11, 2012

Personally, I think from the other direction - I assume that unless you half-arse a job, today's mass-manufacturing techniques are typically unable to compete with skilled labour-of-love human craftmanship. Automated manufacturing imposes severe limits on design, compared to what it available to the craftsman.

Manufacturing engineer politely disagreeing. There's a place for "crafted" things, but mostly only when you really want uniqueness or are working with fiddly materials that defy standardization (wood, leather, etc).

Even if you had the design AND parts available to, say, a Honda Civic, no skilled craftsman is going to put one together as well as the factory. You could do it if you had access to a parts bin containing the parts for fifty Civics and selected only the outlier perfect parts (though outliers aren't real common in an operation capable of one defect per million parts). As far as properly torquing each and every bolt and testing it for defects, it's virtually impossible to beat a good industrial scale operation. A fancy Rolls Royce from the hand-built era is almost comically bad compared to factory built Toyotas. Great looking materials and craftsmanship you can see, but not exactly reliable or trouble free to maintain.

As for hand made audio gear? There's shockingly little automation in modern electronics manufacturing. The big electronics manufacturers run way, way too many different products through those factories to retool them for each device. Most stuff is just as hand made as you can imagine, made by people who are VERY competent at the job they've been assigned to do 1000 times an hour, 12 hours a day, 300+ days a year. There's a 99% chance that if I, a fairly competent solderer, tried to assemble an iPhone from plans and parts, it wouldn't power on. At a good sweatshop, there's way over a 99% chance that it WILL power on.

It's the price/quality of the parts and design limitations that determine audio quality. High quality parts are expensive. The solder joints on the crossovers in my hand made speakers are horrible, horrible things that took me a hundred times longer than it would have taken a 12 year old in a chinese sweatshop. However, the parts are fantastic and the speakers sound AMAZING as a result. Nothing to do with love, everything to do with cost.

Also, it's audio, so there's definitely a placebo element here.
posted by pjaust at 6:17 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and as another anecdotal point, I've also had a number of people (non-audio / musician folk though) comment on how amazing my stock standard budget level Behringer active (amp built in) studio Monitors sound. But if you usually ask them what they normally listen to its the $20-$50 "PC Speakers" that came with their old computer..

so yeah of course these $600 Active Monitors sound bloody good in comparison
posted by mary8nne at 6:31 AM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: You'd have to account for economy of scale if you want to compare on price. I'm buying single chips, paying the warehouse to keep them available for me and also paying the warehouse worker to to cut them out of a roll. Then I'm using PCBs from small manufacturing runs. Therefore the DIY-vs-$300 equipment comparison is not warranted IMO. And even then I'd still bet against the $300 equipment in a blind test, which I am definitely going to perform :)

The thing is that there's no reason for $50 gear to sound so much worse than $300 gear. Where's the awesome-sounding $60 gear? Why hasn't all the hypothetical $60 stuff displaced all the crap $50 gear and subsequently fallen to a $50 price due to scale and competition?

On preview - Great answer, pjaust. Agree fully on the angle that the placebo effect does come into play. Certainly.

I guess the thing I'm wondering most about is this: I'm pretty sure that by spending just a tiiiiny bit more just on better quality audio components and circuit design we can get a product that sounds way better. Where it is appropriate, cost-wise: A $2 digital-analog chip is surely warranted in an Apple laptop, vs. spending a few cents extra on better opamps in a handheld device. I'm wondering about what it is in the market that A) makes manufacturers not take this route, and B) doesn't seem to allow for a favorable outcome for those manufacturers that do so. And there have been several good answers in this thread.

It has happened on occasion - the Tivoli Audio Model 1 sounds great and people love them.

I'm not asking nor expecting that people believe without reservation that my "home made gear" is the awesomest in the world. Of course I don't ask all of you to believe that. But please consider and verify for yourself that it is perhaps not that hard to do better than the average consumer audio gear. Including the stuff that's a little more expensive, e.g. the hundreds-of-dollars stuff. I don't have any experience with the thousands-of-dollars stuff. Check the measured specs and see if they don't cast doubt on the store-bought equipment being as good as the Just Slightly Better Equipment that's been made with an ounce more thought toward sound quality.

Note also that DIY designs have the benefit of being peer-reviewed and open, and are often collaborative efforts by experienced electrical engineers in designing a good circuit for proven parts in order to gain community respect and have fun. DIY gear often has more accurately measured and objectively better distortion specifications than consumer gear.
posted by krilli at 6:35 AM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: A part of the answer, perhaps: I'm not sure that the average electrical engineers that is designing the consumer-audio circuits has heard a competent hi-fi system, so they have no idea what you can aim for.
posted by krilli at 6:47 AM on January 11, 2012

I have some of the same laments, so I understand.

My answers in no particular order:

1- The people designing consumer equipment aren't audiophiles. Whether it is a notebook computer or an ipod or even a car radio or home receiver, they design for their audience. Generally anyway. And the vast majority of people just don't care. Even if the component cost of using a good DAC might only be another dollar, the engineering and fabrication cost is much higher. It is just was too easy to use a omnibus chip that does all the IO in one package than it is to find space on the board for an extra chip, design traces for it and so on, just so some small percentage of users might notice a little better quality.

1b- Even if they use good parts, they don't even bother designing in all the functions. I've got two laptops whose sound chips are fully capable of doing good things, but those pins just aren't connected.

1c- When I was looking at some specs for some chips like you talk about, I noticed that the better ones required more external "stuff" to get the good ratings. IE, there needs to be some fat capacitors or inductors hanging off the chip. Nobody is putting that in an iPod or a notebook. Even if it could fit or the cost doesn't matter, the extra power and weight kills the idea. Or even the logistics of having to buy top-binned capacitors for this task, when the cheap solution is good enough.

2- Most consumers of media don't care about fidelity after some base level is met. Many people consume media "socially" in that they enjoy their media for the story it tells or because they like being a part of the cool crowd or because it is background noise. Fidelity doesn't matter, and as such no manufacturer is going to spend a dime improving it if they don't have to.

3- Even among the pro-sumer types who believe they like good equipment and good fidelity, they are easily fooled by other things. Throw a $1 multi-everything chip into a rackmount box with some XLR connectors and charge twice as much for it, and people will think it sounds better. (And it may well, because using the balanced XLR signal eliminates a ton of noise that far overwhelms the cheap chip's lousy THD rating.)

4- Only speaking for myself, the reason the marketplace rewards cheapness is because the manufacturers encourage it by playing the tricks in #3. Why should I pay Sound Blaster $45 for the same chip that is in the $4 whitebox sound card? Why should I pay $100 for a gold-plated sound card that STILL uses the same chip, just because they deigned to connect up the line-in inputs? I'm not going to reward them for such silliness, and as such, they aren't going to bother caring what I think. I'll do without, unfortunately.

5- In other words, there is more money to be made by maintaining the two-strata differentiation of the marketplace. If you can sell a cheap $10 thing and a higher quality version of the same thing for $100, why bother making a $50 version? The middle of the road thing would cut into the sales of the $100 one.

It sucks, but as far as I can tell, that's why.
posted by gjc at 7:36 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another contrary opinion, challenging the assumptions:

For years now I've been in agreement with a comment I heard somewhere, about the quality of audio reproduction -- bad hardware just isn't built anymore. Although there's still truly high-end stuff, that market's always been strictly for audiophiles, who hear things this Hi-Fi Philistine doesn't. I'm talking about public address systems, home entertainment and auto stereo -- used to be (and I mean decades ago), the cheap stuff sounded bad, and got worse quick. Now it all sounds pretty good. CDs have eliminated scratches; wow, flutter and rumble are obsolete turntable complaints; and digital playback has eliminated the hiss and high-frequency loss of magnetic tape. And those speakers they make now -- so tiny, yet with a great sound -- we live in a wonderful time (unless you're trying to make a living selling music).
posted by Rash at 8:31 AM on January 11, 2012

Part of the answer on the DAC side is that the audio chipsets are components that are almost always outsourced to a very small set of suppliers.

The Mac Book Pro uses the Intel High Definition Audio chipset, which itself was a major upgrade from the absolutely, positively horrendous AC'97 implementations that were around (I'm looking at you realtek.)

The iPhone uses the Cirrus Logic 338S0589 audio codec, which as they say on their web site, is optimized mainly for low power consumption.

These off the shelf audio solutions (Intel, Cirrus Logic, Wolfson, Realtek, etc) are easy to integrate, come in various configurations optimized for power, size, etc, and are very cheap.

None of these sound very good, although they have made great strides in the last 10 years. But what are the alternatives if you want to build a laptop, phone, or other device? Build and design your own chipset? Orders of magnitude more expensive. Go with a low-volume boutique provider? What happens when you need them to scale to 100M+ units?

Besides, 95% of consumers can't tell the difference.

I don't know much about other components, but I would assume it is a similar story.
posted by cmicali at 7:16 PM on March 30, 2012

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